Archive for July, 2010

Sheridan, part II

July 10, 2010

Sheridan has stirred some interest…

First, a nod to Andy, who in his comment to my last post noted that both McCook and Sheridan mention going to Thomas in response to an order. That’s true enough, and on the face of it, should clear up everything.

Sheridan was ordered to take two brigades to Thomas immediately, and move up the third when he could. In his report, Sheridan says he was just moving when the breakthrough came.

I don’t really doubt that statement, but I find the whole situation a lot more complex and unclear than it would suggest.

Captain Beverly Williams, an ADC of McCook’s, has some specifics: He says the order to move to Thomas was received at 10:55, based on his watch when it arrived. He puts the breakthrough at between 11 and 11:10. That’s not a lot of time. (Note, other staffers place the ‘break’ at 11:30 or Noon, but they might be talking about the collapse of Sheridan’s line, not Davis’.)

Williams claims that he took the order to Sheridan, who was, in Williams’ words “endeavoring to bring up his troops.” This suggests that Sheridan’s men were already moving when Williams arrived with the Thomas order. If so, where was Sheridan going? Williams then says he accompanied Lytle (Sheridan’s lead brigade) and was with him when they discovered Hindman’s Rebels. McCook then appeared and ordered Lytle to support Davis – either just before or just after McCook ordered Laiboldt into action.

McCook’s report hits a couple of false notes which make me wonder. For example, McCook claims he was suprised when Wood moved his division. This is disingenous at best; and designed, I think, to save his butt in a court-martial. We know from other testimony that McCook was with Wood when that order arrived, told Wood to go “immediately” and so was fully aware of Wood’s departure.

Wood was only there in the first place because McCook was too slow that morning in finding men to replace Negley. There is at least an implied rebuke from Rosecrans here. It also explains how Laiboldt’s Brigade, of Sheridan, was deployed on the eastern face of (soon to be christened) Lytle Hill in column of regiment in line, awaiting further orders. McCook apparently intended Sheridan to replace Negley. When Wood came in, his line was still short a brigade, so Laiboldt was again tapped to fill in that smaller gap. Before that could happen, however, Wood borrowed Barnes’ Brigade from Van Cleve, and Laiboldt, with no where else to go, halted on the hill with the understanding that he would now support the new line. At this point, Davis also re-deployed, forming up on Wood’s right, and Laiboldt further understood he was to support Davis.

I also think Sheridan was already moving, perhaps in response to the tardy order to replace Negley, long before the order to Thomas arrived.

Here’s where the timeline gets hard to figure.

McCook leaves Wood to find a replacement. Two of Wood’s brigades depart and clear the area; Buell’s Brigade does not, and is attacked while marching north behind the Brotherton Cabin. Buell’s brigade then retreats, fighting most of the way, to Dyer Field.

In the meantime, Hindman attacks and overwhelms Davis. Hindman starts later than the rest of the Rebel attack, by at least a few minutes, and it takes at least 30 minutes to crush Davis – which means that Laiboldt doesn’t see Rebels for 30 to 45 minutes after Wood is first ordered to leave.

What did McCook do during that time? It’s closer to noon when he arrives and orders Lytle and Laiboldt into action. Does Sheridan’s move mean he’s going to Thomas or did McCook somehow supercede that instruction and intend to use Sheridan for Brotherton Field, instead? McCook went to great lengths to downplay his involvement in the fateful order to Wood, which means he might not have wanted to suggest that he was modifying Sheridan’s instructions to go to Thomas.

It is also possible that McCook thought that the gap could be filled by bringing up Laiboldt and shifting one of Davis’ Brigades (Heg’s, now commanded by Martin, and barely 600 men strong) which had been in reserve. Martin was moving up and to the left when attacked, so at least that portion of this surmise is correct, but Laiboldt was stationary for a good half-hour while the fight in Brotherton field was going on.

The regimental and brigade reports in Sheridan’s division don’t mention going to join Thomas. Instead they all mention being shifted only a few hundred yards – in a great hurry – and going into action right away, as if in response to the breakthrough. Now this might just be due to circumstances, and proof of nothing, but I do find it suggestive. Perhaps they never realized their was an order to join Thomas. Lytle, who might have known, was of course dead and could make no report.

Sheridan’s remaining two brigades moved only about 1,000 yards before becoming engulfed in the fight with Hindman. They probably had been moving less than 30 minutes – and probably started moving after McCook told Wood to follow the fateful order immediately.

It’s those roughly 30 minutes that bug me. Where is McCook? What is he thinking? Why has he not sent an order to either Laiboldt (if he intends to just use Laiboldt) or to Sheridan (if he’s going to use the whole division?) By the time he appears and orders Laiboldt to charge, he’s clearly rattled, and already aware that disaster is unfolding. Laiboldt and his officers take note of McCook’s state, and protest the order to charge; they’d rather stay on the hill and receive Hindman’s attack. Instead, of course, they have to go forward.

It’s quite possible that the timing was just perfect, and purely accidental – Sheridan was acting on the order to join Thomas at the exact minute that McCook was confirming Wood’s move, and so Sheridan’s coming up just as Laiboldt engages was coincidental. It’s also possible that Sheridan while understood he was going to join Thomas, as the breakthrough unfolded he simply pitched in where he was. That sort of detail might be too obvious to include in either a report or a memoir. All in all, however, I wish Sheridan would have given us a better window into his thinking during this crucial half-hour.

Where’s Sheridan?

July 3, 2010

Sorry to have let the Blog lie fallow for so long, but June was a busy month. between travel and work, there is little time left to post.

However, there is a topic I’ve been thinking about recently. Over the years, the subject of Phil Sheridan has come up more than once in conjunction with Chickamauga. Sheridan is a contentious figure in Civil War lore, especially regarding his performance in Virginia in 1864-65. Since his division was routed off the field on September 20th, 1863, questions have inevitably been raised about his role at Chickamauga, as well.

I can’t say either that I am a particular fan or detractor. I know people who hate Little Phil, including my good friend Eric Wittenberg, who wrote quite the brief about the man some years ago. (Amazon has it here: In general, while I agree that Phil was a bit hard to like, I think he stacks up better as a soldier then Eric does. but then, I am dealing with him as an infantry division commander, not a cavalryman or army commander.

Sheridan’s role in the battle of Chickamauga is also a bit hard to interpret. His is the second to last division onto the field on the 19th (only Negley’s comes into action later) and then it only dribbles on, by brigade. One brigade – Bradley’s – gets mauled in Viniard Field on the 19th, while a second, under Laiboldt, sees only minor action that day. The third, under Lytle, spent their day guarding the crossing at Lee & Gordon’s Mills, seeing no action and coming onto the field after dark.

On the night of September 19-20, however, Rosecrans decided not to defend the Viniard Field the next day, and pulled most of McCook’s and Crittenden’s men – at least those not with Thomas – back about 1000 yards to the range of hills west of the Widow Glenn house. After a great deal of troop shuffling, the Union flank ultimately ended in the woods between Viniard and Brotherton Fields, west of the Lafayette Road. McCook was given some rather vaguely defined authority over that portion of the line in Brotherton Field and just to the south. Initially this included only Negley’s 2nd Division, XIV Corps, but later came to include Wood’s 1/XXI and Davis’ 2/XX divisions – but not Negley, who had by then departed to go to Thomas.

Davis, of course, had only two brigades and both were woefully cut up after the action on the 19th – he likely had fewer than 1,500 men left in his whole command. Wood, also with two brigades, was augmented by another from Van Cleve, and assigned Negley’s old sector. Of course, this is exactly where the infamous gap in the line develops that so visits disaster on the Army of the Cumberland.

I’m not going to talk about Wood, Rosecrans, “the fateful order of the day” or even much about McCook – I touch on these events only to supply context to Sheridan’s men.

Sheridan’s three brigades spent their morning on September 20th in reserve west of the Widow Glenn’s, out of line and awaiting orders. At the time of the Breakthrough and collapse of the Union line, one of Sheridan’s brigades – Laibolt – was standing in column of regiment on the eastern slope of what is now Lytle Hill, while the other two brigades were marching up the Dry Valley Road.

What were they doing there? This is where things get murky. When Wood got his order to move to support Reynolds, we now know that McCook was also present, and told Wood to move at once, promising to replace him immediately. It’s possible that McCook meant for Sheridan’s men to do that, which would explain their movement at the time.

However, never underestimate the power of George Henry Thomas. At Chickamauga, he is the black hole of troops. At one point or another, it seems like virtually every regiment in the Federal army is heading his way, drawn as if by gravitational pull. There is some evidence that Sheridan’s men were not hurrying to Brotherton Field at McCook’s direction, but instead starting a move to join Thomas.

Some time after the breakthrough, Thomas accompanied Wood’s men back south as they tried to salvage the situation in Dyer Field. The time was about 12:30 p.m., probably an hour or so after Bushrod Johnson’s Rebels smashed through the gap in Brotherton Field to wreak such havoc among the Union right flank. Thomas and Wood are watching an unknown Brigade approach. These strangers look much different than the average Confederate in Bragg’s army: they have new blue uniform coats, strange flags, and in general appear much more uniform than your typical western Rebel.

In fact, they are Kershaw’s South Carolinians, decked out in new British-made steel gray coats that look dark blue, even black, in the field. The flags are standard Confederate battleflags, so familiar to us today, but at the time Bragg’s men carried either Hardee or Polk pattern flags that looked nothing like the battleflag.

In short, Thomas half-thought the approaching line might be Federals. In fact, he sent an aide to check. The aide rode up to the new arrivals, who promptly fired upon him, but even this did not fully decide the question.

Why was Thomas so uncertain? A clue is contained in the instructions he gave to the aide, Captain Kellogg: Kellogg was to “hurry up Sheridan’s Division” who, Thomas reported, had been promised to him just a short while before.

I find this to be a remarkable statement. On the morning of September 20th, Thomas already commanded five of the armies ten regular infantry divisions: Reynolds, Brannan, and Baird from his own corps, as well as Johnson of McCook’s and Palmer of Crittenden’s. Then Negley is sent to him, and some time later, Wood is effectively dispatched to his sector when ordered to close up on Reynolds – not an official transfer, but it might as well be. Now Sheridan is also headed his way?

This leaves McCook to command Davis’ fragment, while Crittenden has Van Cleve – and, as the morning unfolds, even Van Cleve is parcelled out to the line, leaving Crittenden with no one to command.

If Sheridan was already heading to Thomas, what troops did McCook expect he could call on to replace Wood? Sheridan doesn’t help us, in either his OR report or his memoirs; he fails to tell us what his last orders were before disaster struck. No written orders from Rosecrans survive in the OR, either, so it is likely that any instructions sent to Sheridan were verbal.

Of course, Sheridan’s men never reached Thomas. They came to grief on and around Lytle Hill, were broken and then rallied on the hills to the west. Eventually they made their way to Rossville, and then (perhaps) beyond it.

This isn’t the last time that Thomas mentions Sheridan on the 20th, however. As late as 3:45 p.m., after James Garfield joined Thomas on Snodgrass Hill, Garfield reported that the bulk of the army was in fact still fighting, adding the detail (incorrectly, as it turned out) that “Sheridan is in with the bulk of his division, but in ragged shape.”

Why this last message? Just before Garfield arrived, Lt. Col. Gates P. Thruston of McCook’s staff had also reached Thomas, reporting that Davis and Sheridan were reforming, so Thomas sent Thruston back to bring up Sheridan to extend the line on Horseshoe Ridge. That move never happened, but Thomas was expecting it to, and so informed Garfield.

Sheridan’s orders on the 20th are one of the bigger mysteries of the battle, and one I’ve still not resolved in my mind. My own conversations with the park guys, and with Scott Day of Birmingham (who also has a fascination with Sheridan’s role in the battle) still have not fully resolved the issue, and in the absence of new information we can only speculate.

There are other questions about Sheridan, of course, as well as a couple of anecdotes well worth repeating, so I am not entirely done with the short, bullet-headed Irishman. But that’s for another day…